Dr Mary Donohue

Being Authentic And Doing Customer Research With Dr Mary Donohue

Last Updated on November 16, 2020

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About Dr Mary Donohue

Most people I meet tell me I have an infectious and sincere passion for living and celebrating life. To a large degree, this sincerity is based in breaking through my roadblocks including my fight to overcome chronic leukemia. The stress of living with cancer led me to set an ambitious goal of reducing stress for all, and specifically the stress we experience daily through digital communication.

I am a social scientist with a focus on digital communication, my research and products have benefited companies like Microsoft, Walmart, American Airlines, TD Bank, Bank of Montreal, OLG, and Kaiser Permanente.

I am humbled to have been recognized by premiers, prime ministers, Queen Elizabeth II, and my peers. I have been honored as one of the 18 Outstanding Women in Tech and named one of the 100 Most Influential Woman by Diversity MBA in 2020. My work has appeared in Harvard Business Review, as research for stories on major networks, in columns for the Huffington Post and Financial Post, and on-air for all the major news networks.

To keep myself sane, I practice yoga, run , and enjoy every single day of being a mom. I know I sound like a nerd, but for a brief shining moment I will never forget, I was a Supreme with Miss Diana Ross and yes, it was a fabulous!

About Donohue Learning

My work in exploring communication breakdown began with a chance remark in a Walmart Distribution Center (DC) one very hot day in August 2013. Jabo Floyd, General Manager of Walmart’s largest DC, asked me why Millennials were not responding to leadership in the same way other generations did. This was the impetus for my research and the proverbial canary in the coal mine. If my client, Walmart, the largest company in the world in 2013, realized that communication was breaking down and they didn’t know why – who else was struggling with this issue?

I quit teaching and my research began in earnest the following year.

I had to pinpoint the problem, which is that people make assumptions about meaning when communicating digitally, this is called digital static. Digital static is the mental noise preventing you from truly understanding what others are trying to communicate in the digital space, be it email, text, or social media. Digital static leads to, stress and burnout.

Now I had to figure out how to get rid of digital static. Along the way I was hit by a car, suffered a concussion and eventually due to my chronic illness was told that my organs may be shutting down. Because of my concussion I couldn’t work. I didn’t understand people, I was experiencing digital static. When I was at my lowest was when I had my eureka moment. By reframing my researching and testing I realized that if we can get rid of digital static and the stress associated with it you can increase productivity by 10% and decrease stress by 10% which made us 10% happier and suddenly my world made sense again. As always my clients were there for me, my case study on this topic with Microsoft will be presented in September at the Michigan Academy of Arts Sciences and Letters.


How Did You Get Your First Several Customers Or Users? How Many Users Or Customers Do You Have Now?

My first client, post doctorate, was Walmart in 2012. I networked in Arkansas for a few years before I even pitched them. I knew I had to land a “big” fish to prove my theories and I figured the best way for a nobody like me to catch a big fish was to use the right bait, I just had to figure out what it was. Walmart is still a client today.

How Does Your Company Grow And Acquire New Customers?

Current clients are my best source of business; as a matter of fact, over 20% of my business is by referral. The cost of new customer acquisition clients can cost upwards of $7.00 to the $40,000 it cost me to win Walmart back in 2012. Today 80% of my business comes from speaking, (webinars during Covid) including my two TedX talks.

What Actionable Tips And Tricks Do You Have For New Founders Who Are Looking To Get Their First Thousand Users Or Dollars?

The best is to do your research, your business isn’t about you, it’s about serving your clients. Find out what their pain is, and make solving their pain your passion.

Be interested in others. When you are sharing on Instagram, or Twitter or Linked In remember it’s never about you – it’s about them.

Make sure you walk the talk. People are really smart, if you say something but …your Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter doesn’t match this talk, people will find you disingenuous. People buy from that aren’t sincere.

What Is Something You’ve Learned That Would Not Be Obvious To Somebody Who Hasn’t Worked In Your Space Before?

My research demonstrates that my audience wants simple instant gratification. They want this gratification customized. Post experience they want to feel it was all about them, and that whatever you gave them helped them.

What’s The Craziest Thing That’s Happened To You (Good Or Bad) On Your Founder Journey?

I hate flying so much so that I carry my rosary, the medal of St. Christopher, and the prayer beads that my school friend Cheri made for me. In fact, my anxiety is so bad I can’t get on a plane without asking Wendell and Cheri to pray for me — I have actually stepped out of a boarding line to call or text them before getting checked aboard. But flying is what I have to do to meet the people who buy, so I do it.

One fine sunny February day I climbed on a plane in Detroit bound for Arkansas and went through my ritual of getting out all my flying talismans. I had the aisle seat – it helps reduce my phobia – and turned to the man beside me – who was well over six feet tall – to say to him that I would move if the flight wasn’t full, to give him extra room. The flight, as it turned out, was full. Before we taxied for takeoff, the pilot announced that we would have a lovely short flight to Bentonville, where the weather was lovely. He then announced our altitude and cruising speed, and I of course cringed and started quietly saying my Hail Mary’s.

After we had climbed to cruising altitude, the flight attendant said we could unbuckle our safety belts. I realized I had to use the facilities — Oh no! That meant moving – and perhaps upsetting the balance of the jet in the air. (Yes, I still think I may upset the balance of the plane.) Finally I got my logical brain to work and stood up. I was feeling pretty good about this point; the sun was shining, I was actually moving around, and passengers and crew were chatting.

I was almost back in my seat when it happened; we hit turbulence and I was flung onto my seat mate. I may or may not have fallen across his lap, but I was too damn busy praying to think. As I composed myself and began a string of apologies he very calmly introduced himself as Bob and assured me the plane was fine, that turbulence was just a speed bump in the air. He continued to chat and I calmed down. My new friend Bob was well traveled. He had been to Rome to visit the Vatican and had seen the Pope. He had been behind the Iron Curtain and had traveled with the US military. His wife was a talented teacher of whom he was very proud, and his children sounded delightful. He said he did something with innovation now.

I told him what I did and explained what I was working on and my current theory about millennials in the workplace. Then it was Bob’s turn to ask tons of questions. Fortunately my brain had sufficiently recovered from my fear of flying and I was actually lucid. I can get very passionate about my work and totally forgot I was in the air. I had a wonderful time with this intelligent and articulate gentleman.

During our conversation I mentioned to Bob that I was completing a book and he suggested that he would like to read it. We parted in Bentonville. I followed up by email and sent him the book, explaining that it was a work in progress and that I would welcome any suggestions or edits he might have. 

A few months later I heard from Bob. Not only had he read the book but he began to apply some of its principles– He felt his company might benefit from a broader application of mentoring and he offered to introduce his firm’s chief learning officer to me.

His company was Walmart and I started working for them six months later.  To this day Bob and I send each other holiday greetings and we always hope to see each other again!

What Are Your Favorite Books?

“How to Stop Worrying and Start Living” by Dale Carnegie “Counterblast” by Mashall McLuhan, “Ted Talks” by Chris Anderson, “The Five Most Important Questions” by Peter Drucker, “The Complete Guide to Yin Yoga” by Bernie Clark, Harvard Business Review, and Anything by Agatha Christie!

Anything You’d Like To Plug?

Yes please – My New Company that will be launching with my book in September. It’s called The Digital Wellness Center. We have crafted a modern and inexpensive experience, with the goal of reducing stress levels in our clients and making their lives better. Our fun, meditative, somewhat tribal approach is grounded in years of participatory action research. Current results indicate we increase employee productivity by 10% and reduce stress by up to 10%. The Digital Wellness Center offers a new approach to addressing stress in the workplace. We are literally going to change how people see their colleagues and their place of work. And we are just getting started.

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